Every emotionally feeling human being has been entombed by the paralysis of shame at some point in their lives. You know the feeling, but maybe you can’t name it? Shame manifests physically as dread: a pit in our stomach and a hollow sunken chest, often accompanied by headaches, nausea, and a tightening around our heart and lungs. We tend to literally make our bodies smaller by hunching over, rounding our shoulders forward or curling up into fetal position. We curl up emotionally too, avoid eye contact, withdraw from social interaction, and halt progress on projects that used to give us energy and enthusiasm.
But what’s really going on here?
When we encounter uncomfortable situations, embarrassing moments, and colorful challenging characters over the course of our lives, the result can be an overwhelming feeling of being not enough and we get…. confused. The confusions is this: We misinterpret doing something bad for being bad. Instead of feeling responsible for a bad outcome we feel there is something innately wrong with us down to the core of our very being, and that’s what caused a bad outcome. We think that something wrong makes us unworthy of love, honor, or respect. It’s this confusion, not our actions (or lack thereof), that leads us to the soul crushing state of shame.
When we think we messed something up, we can easily seek forgiveness from ourself and others if we feel worthy of it. When we think we ARE messed up, we can’t seek forgiveness because we’re confused and don’t think we are worthy of it. Instead, we head down a painful spiral of self-loathing and self-hatred.
Sometimes we become attached to our feeling of shame, we hang on to it thinking that we can shame ourselves into better behavior, into being a better person, into showing up in a different way. The thing is, when we hang on to shame we don’t have room for empathy. We are too caught up in hating ourself for BEING bad, that we can’t connect to anyone else’s emotions. Shame KEEPS us in the spiral of bad behavior and leaves us more and more disconnected.
Okay, okay. Let’s be proactive though. How do we DISMANTLE shame?
Recognize it instead of burying it. Notice the feeling, notice the physical sensations happening in your body, notice what you are being called to do (retreat? be along? nothing at all?) and simply acknowledge it. We can’t fight shame without saying hello to it first. It’s worth mentioning that one of the reasons shame often ends up buried is because when we lead a privileged life, it can feel ridiculous that we are feeling this way at all. It’s not ridiculous. It’s completely normal. No matter how many or few advantages you’ve been given, experiencing shame is part of the human experience. There’s nothing wrong with you. But also, feeling shame doesn’t help anyone- yourself or anyone else who might not have the same set of privileges. On the other hand, overcoming shame helps everyone.
Be vulnerable, open up, and talk about it with someone you trust. If this sounds intimidating or if you can’t think of anyone to trust, start small. Start tiny. Start miniscule. You don’t have to go into a deep dive with the first person you see today, but test the waters by offering small bits of vulnerability and see how the other person responds. If the conversation goes well, offer up more the next time you talk. If you don’t get a response that you’re comfortable with, pick someone else! It’s scary to put yourself out there, but the truth is we don’t make connections by being perfect. We connect with people by being human, making errors, admitting faults, learning, and growing.
Forgive yourself- practice exercising the same compassion you offer others on yourself. We all f*ck up. Frequently! What’s important is to realize that’s okay, have compassion, and make adjustments when necessary. No one is perfect. Pretend you are your son, daughter, niece, nephew, or someone else you have an endless of compassion for. What would you say to them in the same scenario? Now offer those same thoughts up to yourself.
Dig in and dismantle exactly what you are feeling. Take it apart. Pinpoint the THING that your shame is stemming from. Is there learning to receive here? Is there a behavior that you can change? It’s far easier to separate a bad act from actually being bad yourself when you recognize how you could do things differently the next time in order to get a different result. Don’t focus too much on what happened LAST time, shift your focus to the process of learning… EVEN if this is a behavior that has played out many times!
Open yourself up to receiving love, honor, and respect. When we’re feeling shame we put up walls that even the smallest compliments can’t get over. Every single person on this earth is worthy of receiving kindness, love, gratitude, compliments, honor, and respect. When we’re feeling ashamed or “bad” we deflect anyone’s efforts to make us feel good. It’s not helpful and it’s not true. What is true and real? Probably that compliment someone is trying to give you or the love and respect they are trying to bestow upon you.
Big change doesn’t happen overnight. With everything mentioned here, it’s okay to start small. Cracking yourself wide open in one fell swoop could be cathartic, but it might not be realistic. Which is to say, most likely you’ll make progress and then take a step backwards. This is to be expected with any kind of personal growth… and something I have to remind myself of nearly daily. Lost progress or momentum? Take a deep breath and start again.